The streetcar barn — aka the Joseph McCarthy Transit Center in downtown Kenosha — is going to seem a little emptier when Brad Preston retires.
He’s been the streetcar technician and grand pooh-bah for more than a decade.
And he’s loved every minute of it.
“This has been a dream job. It’s just fabulous,” he said when we talked inside the streetcar barn. “I’ve met people from all over the world and talked to people in other cities about their streetcars. It’s a small group that operates streetcars, so we all know each other.”
It’s probably not a shock to discover that new streetcar parts are not readily available.
That means Preston has had to improvise, which he relishes.
“We’ve had to horse trade for parts with other cities that have streetcars,” he said, “and we come up with our own parts, too. We find a bus part that’s close to what we need, weld it and make it work.”
He points out a water tank on the back of a streetcar that he calls “a Kenosha invention” now used on streetcars everywhere. The misting from the water tank mimics the effects of a rainy day to keep the wheels wet and minimize the “squeak” noise when the streetcar turns a corner.
“I love that type of challenge,” said Preston, who added that “as a mechanic, you learn something new every day. You’re always getting creative.”
He’s hoping the streetcars will be operating again soon after being stopped during the COVID-19 shutdown. During this downtime, “we’re done here doing maintenance and other projects. Everyone asks us when the streetcars will be running again. We’re working to get back to normal, but the target date is above my pay grade.” (City officials are aiming for Aug. 1 to get the streetcars rolling again.)
During this shutdown, he said, “It’s been really tough because we haven’t been able to have visitors here. This whole operation was done to help Kenosha and has become a staple of the community, but we had to hit the pause button this year.”
‘A labor of love’
The biggest issue in keeping Kenosha’s streetcars operating “is the TLC each car needs,” Preston said. “There’s always something to do, but it’s been a labor of love. These aren’t ‘hangar queens’ that sit inside and look good; these streetcars are out in the elements, putting on miles and are all at least 70 years old.” He quickly adds that the 70-year-old vehicles “are built like tanks and perform flawlessly.”
As he prepares to head into retirement, Preston said the thing that’s surprised him the most about his years working with the city’s streetcars is “becoming an ambassador for the city of Kenosha. That’s something I never thought I would be.”
Preston gives streetcar tours and has been interviewed on radio and TV, including the PBS series “Around the Corner with John McGivern” and “Discover Wisconsin.” (He’s also been interviewed numerous times by the Kenosha News, naturally.)
As for the public’s opinion of the streetcars, Preston says, “It depends on who you talk to. Some people grumble that ‘no one rides these things,’ but then you stop and pick up 30 kids.”
The new guy
Joe LaMothe will be taking over for Preston and is “looking forward to all the challenges in this job. It will be great.”
LaMothe, who’s been a bus mechanic for the city of Kenosha for eight years, shares one very important trait with the man he’s replacing. Both he and Preston say coming to work every day on the streetcar fleet “is not like coming to work at all.”
At home, they’re both busy rebuilding classic vehicles — Preston has a 1967 van, LaMothe is working on a 1971 VW bus — and Preston said “someone asked me once what it’s like to get paid for doing something I’d be doing at home anyway. It’s wonderful.”
Though Preston won’t be the city’s streetcar technician, he’ll still be chairman of the Kenosha Area Streetcar Society and plans to stay active with “that wonderful group of people.”